Buying Collectible Cars

I recently gave a talk on buying a classic or collectible car at a men’s group.  Here is is what I said:

When it comes to buying hot rods and classics, you hear a lot of rules. Some are good, some are so-so and some are lousy. I’m going to give you mine and let you decide how to rate them. For you who already know all this already, sorry ‘bout that. Don’t shoot me, I was asked to do this. Anyway, here are my rules.

My niece sitting in my '67 Jag XKE.  That car had a "WOW" factor that was off the charts.

My niece sitting behind the steering wheel of my ’67 Jag XKE. That car had a “WOW” factor that was off the charts.

First rule: If you’re buying a classic car or hot rod, don’t assume the experts know what it will be worth in a few years. When I got into hot cars, they weren’t classics. They were what I drove every day. I had a ‘67 Jag XKE roadster that I sold for $3200 and thought I made a killing since I’d paid $1300 for it less than a year before. Then I had a ‘70 Hemi Roadrunner that I sold for $2000 and thought I’d really scored since I’d paid $1400 for it two years before and it had been my daily driver. In average condition, both cars are worth in the six figures now. Since when I owned and sold them it was during the original gas crunch of the ‘70’s and the Hemi ’s mileage was in the gallons-per-mile if you put your foot into it, few expected them to go up in value at that time. However, if hindsight were foresight, we’d all be rich. Then again, I knew a guy who bought an ‘81 Delorean for 17k when it was a couple of years old because he expected the value to skyrocket and the average value is now 22k and another guy who bought a ‘78 Corvette Pace Car new for almost 25k and parked it after driving it a few years, expecting it to be worth it’s weight in gold, but it’s only now worth a few thou more than he paid for it. Even at the lousy interest rates lately, they would have done better putting the money in the bank. Although we’ve seen the value of some cars shoot for the stars again, if the stock market crashes like it seems to be doing now, their value will too. Buy a car because you want it, not because you want to make money off of it. They’re not money in the bank, but movable works of art. Be wise in how you buy, but do it for the fun of driving the car instead of as an alternative to buying a rental property.

My 56 T-Bird: a lot of work and money to break even on the money.

My 56 T-Bird: a lot of work and money to break even on just the dollars spent.

Second rule: Don’t rebuild it yourself. Now if you’re a mechanic and painter, bought the car at an absolute steal or have a friend who can do all the work for a pittance, then go for it. But the best way for the average guy to get in the hobby is to let the other guy do the work and buy it cheaply. Even the guys who do all the work restoring a car themselves will many times get pennies per hour for their labor, if that. If you have the skill to do the work and love doing it, that may not matter. Cars are a passion and, like most passions, have little to do with reason. Of my three cars that I restored, I have one break-even, one slight profit and one home run, when factoring in my labor. But I was lucky. In the future, If I buy another car it will buy ready-to-cruise. You may get people who say that they would not have been able to get the car they have in the way it was restored for the price they paid, and I will not dispute that. But could they sell it for what they have into it without finding the perfect buyer? Remember that finding perfection on this earth is about as hard as finding New Old Standard parts for a Duesenburg. I personally know a guy who built a beautiful show car with all the best stuff and had it for sale for over a year with no serious offers. It finally sold at an auction to a porn actress for over100 grand less than he spent on it. He said, “I don’t even want to know what’s going on in that back seat.” Unless you love turning a wrench and using a sander, my general rule now is to buy someone else’s labor on the cheap. Unfortunately, I’ve never followed that rule.

After many hours of work and many dollars  spent, the Bat Rod is on the road.

After many hours of work and many dollars spent, the Bat Rod is on the road.  If I sold it, my profit on hard dollars invested would be minimal.

Third rule: Everybody lies. I don’t really believe that is always the case, but Dr. House often said that on his TV series and it has an element of truth. When you’re buying a car, assume it’s a lie. No matter how good it looks, check it out. If the car doesn’t have a fiberglass or aluminum body, bring a refrigerator magnet to check out the body. If there’s bondo, the magnet won’t stick. It’s a quick and easy way to check for prior repairs. Bring coveralls, a creeper, a light and a mirror. Check out the frame, underbody, inner fenders and suspension. Look for rust, poor repairs and rotted bushings. If the owner doesn’t want you to do that, walk away immediately. Ask for receipts on all repairs and rebuilds the owner claims were done. While I won’t say he’s definitely lying without them, I wouldn’t put my money on his word. Check under the car for drips. If it’s dripping then, it will likely do a lot worse when you drive it home. Even a car that has been detailed can reveal its dark secrets if you look carefully. While still overseas, I bought my ‘72 Vette from a friend here who claimed he knew the entire history of the car and that it ran like a scalded dog. Supposedly, the interior was in great shape, all the chrome had been redone and all parts were there. I took his word for it. He lied. The rockers were tightened with no lash on solid lifters, the interior was bad, the chrome was shot and the boxes of parts had many omissions. I still have the car, but our friendship suffered a fatal blow. I just had to put a lot more time and money into it than I expected. The worst stories I’ve heard are eBay cars that were not checked out by the buyer. If you can’t check out the car yourself or do not feel qualified to make an educated evaluation, hire a professional. A cost of a couple hundred is better than a loss of a couple thousand, or more. It hasn’t happened to me, but has happened to friends, car guys who dropped their guard.

An auction car can look great, but have hidden problems.

An auction car can look great, but have hidden problems.  I bought this at the same time as I bought the ’65 convertible and the person who put in the shifter was an idiot.  Then it cost a fortune to get them back home.  The auction company lied about transporters to California.

Fourth rule: Avoid emotion. Auction cars are the most dangerous because you often have little time to properly check out the car and problems can be hid. Caught up in auction frenzy, you can bid on car without properly checking it out. While I have heard of great deals at an auction, many are not. I speak from experience. I bought an ‘65 Impala convertible that looked great. I hadn’t planned on bidding, but it looked so good, sounded so good and was going for so little that I threw in a bid. I got it. It was not until careful inspection that I realized some almost-hidden rust issues and suspension problems. Emotion cost me a couple of grand, because I fixed everything before I sold it. Well, that and I bought it right before the stock market “readjustment” of 2008. The double whammy of car investing. The same is true when buying from a dealer or individual. While I would normally advise against buying from a dealer, it can work if you know the value of the car and don’t let your emotions rule your brain. Remember that there is always another ‘67 El Camino big-block out there and be ready to walk away. The trump card for the buyer is “no.” Be ready to use it.

A before and after of my home run: a '63 fuel-injected Corvette

A before and after of my home run: a ’63 fuel-injected Corvette

Fifth rule: Know why you’re buying the car. If it’s just for an investment, I’m not the guy to talk to. I’ve made good money on most collectible cars I’ve bought and sold over the years, but I often sold too soon or walked away from one I should have bought because it didn’t appeal to me. If you’re buying a car because you like it, then consider my previous four rules. Normally, at least you won’t lose money if you sell. However, this is too often where emotion over rules the mind. Even if a car has no expectation of going up in value and is going to take a lot of work, you might want to do it. While I am not one of those “the journey is more important than the destination” guys, you can build the car you want, the way you want and have the satisfaction of doing it yourself. In my nine years of writing my car column in The Union, I’ve heard a lot of different stories about why someone bought or built a certain car. Often the story is not logical. But what love is? However, just like having STD test done before a marriage, check out that love of your life and know the consequences before you commit. If you think the rust and rot on the car you want is worth the cost, go for it, just like if the woman you love and want to marry has . . . . Well, you get the idea. Go in with your eyes open.

My last rule is on insurance. As a general policy, don’t go with regular insurance companies unless you plan to use the car as a daily driver. Companies like Hagerty’s and Grundy usually give better, more comprehensive coverage for far less than Allstate, Farmers or State Farm. When it comes to paying for a loss, insurance companies have Actual Cash Value, Stated Value and Agreed Value. Only Agreed Value makes sure you get paid what the policy says your car is worth. The other two allow the insurance company to wiggle out of paying you the amount your policy was for. Also, if the insurance company can make your car worth less, they can total it rather than repair it after an accident, even if it isn’t the best for you. Not that they would ever do that. Some companies make you get an appraisal to make sure it is worth that, others do not. There are normally conditions regarding mileage and when you can drive the car for collector policies. Check out the company you use to make sure it is the best for you.

If you were expecting me to tell you what car to buy, sorry. There are too many variables. Do you like foreign or American made? Do you want modern, nostalgic or classic car? Do you want street rod or pure stock? How much modifying do you want? Just like the women we love, there are many choices and not all of us agree on which one is best. You like a blond or a redhead? Voluptuous or athletic? Strategically added silicon or not? It’s all personal preference. If it’s stock, the older the car, usually the rougher the ride and the lower the performance. I wouldn’t dare tie that into my women and cars analogy. A ‘40 Ford coupe or a ‘57 Vette might look cool, but they were not all that comfortable to drive or ride in for long distances or all that dependable compared to modern cars. That’s why resto-rods, cars that look pretty much stock but have modern running gear and conveniences, are so popular. There’s a lot of debate on how it affects value, but that depends on individual car model and options. Clones have become popular for high-dollar muscle cars, like Hemi Roadrunners that were once plain Plymouth Belvederes and SS454 Chevelles that entered this world as humble small-block Malibus, so watch out if you’re in that market. A clone should cost far less than an original, so get documentation. Finally, the market for later-model cars that were once shunned, ones like the mid-to-late 70’s Trans-Ams, Datsun 280Z’s and the 80’s Pontiac Fieros, have gained popularity while still being affordable. They also have more creature comforts. Just be aware that smog checks are ,done on cars newer than 1975. Although, by law, all original smog equipment is supposed to be on any car, that’s not really checked. So what’s the next car craze? You tell me. I’ve put down a few websites that you can use to establish value of your dream car. Again, these are not perfect. Once you modify a car, which many of us have, it can affect the value positively or negatively. The main thing about a hobbyist car is to do your research and have fun after you buy it.

Here are a few websites that can help you find what a certain car will cost you. You will see that they do not all agree on values, so take them as background information rather than a bible.

Old San Francisco

"HI, I'm Chad."

“HI, I’m Justin, your wait-buddy.”

Old San Francisco is rapidly dying.  Sure there are cable cars and Queen Anne houses, but the shops around Union Square have none of that feel you get when you watch a noir-ish film like The Maltese Falcon.  Sadly, there is not much left of that San Francisco.  “Modern” is the zeitgeist of San Francisco now, I-Phones rather than phone booths and Starbucks and a Caramel Macchiato instead of a coffee shop and a mug of joe.  And with that comes the over-casual dress and attitude that is the current age.  White linen table cloths and dignified waiters in ties have fallen to disposal paper coverings and a guy in a Major Lazor T-shirt saying, “Hi, I’m Justin, your wait-buddy.  What can I get you?”  But not everywhere.  There are a few hold-outs who refuse to give in to the current trends.

John's Grill on Ellis Street

John’s Grill on Ellis Street

A couple of blocks south of Union Square is a haven of Old San Francisco named John’s Grill.   Not being a regular visitor of San Francisco, I’d never heard of it.  By chance, I was checking out restaurants on my smartphone (yes, I do have one) while my wife, Kelly, was shopping, I found it was close and sounded good.  Established in 1908, it was a favorite haunt of Dashiell Hammett.  In fact, you trivia nuts, it is mentioned in The Maltese Falcon. To be honest, I did not remember it at the time, only realizing it when I saw their website on my phone.  I loved the book, The Book, so much that I dedicated my latest Morg Mahoney mystery to it.  Obviously, I found that interesting and I called.  I had no problem getting a reservation, but then six is way too early to dine for most San Franciscans.  I asked if there were a dress code, since I was in Levi’s, and was a little disappointed that there was not.  We showed up on time, but opted to go upstairs to “the Maltese Falcon” Room, which didn’t open until six-thirty.  We took a seat at the small, but well-stocked bar while we waited.

Johnny Walker and Soda?

Johnny Walker and Soda?

I should have ordered Johnny Walker and soda, or two, or more, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but had one Johnny Walker Black on the rocks instead.  Personally, I think soda ruins scotch.  The bartender, Louis, pronounced Louie like in Casablanca,  had been there for thirty years.  The bar was pretty empty, so we had a chance to chat.  He mentioned a few of the famous and infamous who had dined there.  He told us of how things had changed since he started.  Then, you would wear a tux when dining there on Friday and Saturday nights.  You wouldn’t have got through the door in jeans.  While he did not criticize the current policy, I got the feeling that he missed the old days.  The clock struck six-thirty (figuratively) and we went upstairs.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon

Downstairs was nice, with cloth table cloths and mahogany paneling, but was rather noisy.  More the hangout for locals coming in for a Grey Goose vodka martini or white wine at the end of the work day than quite dining.  As we hit the top of the stairs and walked past the display case with a black falcon that looked like a dead ringer for the one in the movie, the mood changed.  There was a guitarist playing mellow jazz.  Tables had more space between them.  We had a window table overlooking Ellis Street.  The waiter was polite, helpful and a study in black, with shirt, trousers and tie all in that basic color.  And he wasn’t named Justin and didn’t try to be our good buddy.

The menu looked liked something out of the 50’s or 60’s (click here to see it). There was no seared ahi or cranberry quinoa salad.  I probably should have ordered the Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops in honor of their mention in The Book, but I’m not in love with lamb.  Just because you like a character in a book doesn’t mean you have to eat and drink what he did.  So I opted for the sea bass.  My wife took a walk down memory lane and ordered the filet with Bernaise sauce, her favorite when we both ate steak in the 60’s and 70’s.  Nothing was listed for a starch but a baked potato (imported all the way from Idaho, no less), although I now understand fries are available.  We both had the baked potato, again my wife’s favorite.

The food was great and servings were generous.  Although my sea bass had a beurre blanc sauce and I’m not really into that, the fish itself and the veggies were perfectly cooked.  My wife said the same about her steak.  She was so impressed that she ordered the chocolate mouse torte and said that it was worth the calories, which is saying a lot.  All the way through, our waiter was attentive while never hovering.  It was just like fine dining in the 60’s.  It wasn’t cheap, but we’ve spent far more for far less quality.  If you’re ever visiting San Francisco, I would recommend  breaking your diet and splurging at John’s Grill.

I should mention that Zagat rated John’s Grill as the “#1 Steakhouse in San Francisco.”   Also,The Maltese Falcon Room is a National Literary Landmark and the meeting place of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco (click here for more info).  We chose wisely, both for food and for literary history.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett in coat, tie and fedora

Why write about John’s Grill?  Because it’s a dying breed.  This is Old San Francisco, with all the class of a Hammett novel.  If we lived in San Francisco, would we be regulars?  Maybe not.  I could almost hear my arteries hardening as I ate.  I do try to eat more healthily than I did in the 60’s.  However, the feeling of quiet quality, of dining rather than eating is becoming rare.  We were not rushed.  It would be a place I would go on special occasions.  And our dinner there was a special occasion.  I felt like I should have been wearing a coat and tie, even though it wasn’t required, and have hung my snap-brim fedora (yes, I have more than one and do wear them) on a coat hook by the door.  I was sure that I  felt the ghost of Dashiell Hammett sitting there with us, having lamb chops, baked potato and sliced tomatoes.   But maybe that was just the air conditioning.

Old San Francisco is fading away.  When you shop in stores like Saks and Neiman Marcus, you see people in frayed jeans and T-shirts (men and women) instead of suits and dresses.  Am I the only one who thinks we’ve lost something when we no longer make things a special occasion in our lives and dress accordingly?  Maybe I belong back when Hammett was writing about San Francisco.  When no one would have dared go to John’s Grill in Levi’s.


Happy Birthday, Bach

ill_be_bachWhile you may have heard that the famous Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, he wasn’t.  Well, that’s what the date was when he was born according to Old Style dating, but the calendar changed before he died, so he was born March 31, 1685 according to New Style dating.  Is that as clear as mud?  Let me muddy the waters more.

Julius Caesar established a reformed calendar in 46 BC.  However, it lagged the astronomical calendar by 11 minutes a year.  Hey, what’s a few minutes a year?  By 1582, it amounted to 10 days, so Pope Gregory XIII did a quick-step and bumped the calendar up 10 days to correct that.  However, only Catholic countries, i.e., Venice, the Papal States the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, Portugal, and France made the change at that time.  Although Protestant countries later fell in line, Bach’s Saxe-Eisenach only did so in 1700, making him born March 21, O.S. (Old Style), but March 31, N.S. (New Style).  Since I was also born on March 31, I opt to use the N.S. dating, making him a birthday brother, so to speak.

The Three B's Bach, Beethoven and Brahms

The Three B’s
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms

The “Three B’s” are considered the premier composers, all beginning with the letter B.  Although Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are now considered to be the three great B’s, it was not originally so.  In 1854, composer and writer Peter Cornelius described the Three B’s at Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz in an article meant to elevate Hector Berlioz to the stature of the already-recognized greatness of Bach and Beethoven.  If you’re not that familiar with Hector’s works, don’t feel like the Lone Stranger.  Although considered influential in the Romantic period, he and his works are not well known to the general music listener.  However, later that century the conductor Hans van Bulow replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (Mr. Lullaby) in his assessment of the great Three B’s and the rest is history.

The Rabbit of Seville

The Rabbit of Seville

Getting back to J.S. Bach, let me give a more personal note of why I am so proud to have been born on his birthday.  I was not brought up in a household that listened to classical music.  In fact, the only classical music I remember experiencing was in Warner Brothers cartoons.  Who can forget Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Rabbit” to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in (click here) “What’s Opera Doc?”  Or Bugs Bunny singing “Let Me Shave Your Mop” in the revised version of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” (click here) “The Rabbit of Seville?”  Yet I had no idea these were but parodies of the great musical masterpieces lying in wait for me.

When I went to college, there were private listening rooms in the library where I could play records (I’m dating myself here) while listening to them on headphones while I studied calculus or fluid dynamics. One of the platters I played was (click here) “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by J.S. Bach.  I was hooked.  Perhaps it was because his intricate precision appealed to my engineering mind.  Musicologist Hebert Anton Kellner considered Bach a mathematician because of this aspect of his music (click here).  Whatever the case, this superstar of the Baroque era of classical music became a favorite of mine and remains so to this day.  I can honestly say that Bach was a guiding light on my path of musical appreciation.

For those of you who remember the TV show M.A.S.H., when Hawkeye is giving Radar a crash course in classical music for a nurse he is dating, Hawkeye tells Radar to just say “Ah, Bach,” if the nurse brings up J.S.  The reason is that Bach is the penultimate composer, about whom nothing needs to be said.  Unfortunately, Radar doesn’t quite understand.  (click here)  Yet, the point is well made: the very name of Bach says it all.

Birthday Boy, Johann Sebastian Bach

Birthday Boy,
Johann Sebastian Bach

Only a fool would deny the fact that J.S. Bach was a great composer.  There are far better sites from far better musical historians who write on that, so I will not make any feeble effort to compete.  I will only say that he is the greatest to me.  I will also note that the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church has a (click here) feast day in his remembrance on July 28th every year (he died on July 28, 1750).  As an Anglican myself, I find this most appropriate for a man who wrote some of the greatest musical works of all times, primarily for the Christian church.  For an example, click here for a performance of “St. Matthew’s Passion.”

Happy 330th birthday, Bach.

Friday the 13th

13 friday2015 will have three of the ultimate of unlucky days, Friday the 13th.  February, March and November will all host one.  While not common to have so many, it will happen eleven times this century.  For friggatriskaidekaphobics, they will be very bad years.  In case you didn’t guess, friggatriskaidekaphobia is an irrational fear of Friday the 13th, deriving from the Norse goddess Frigga, the wife of Odin who donated her name to Friday, combined with Greek tris (‘three’), kai (‘and’), deka (‘ten’), and good ol’ -phobia.  Don’t like that word?  How about paraskevidekatriaphobia, which combines paraskevi (‘Friday’) and dekatria (‘thirteen’) with our beloved -phobia.  But enough esoteric etymology, why is Friday the 13th the penultimate unlucky day?  Herein lies the rub.  No one really knows.  So let’s explore some of the conjectures posited.

13 for dinner

13 for dinner with a Judas in the mix

Friday was the day Jesus was crucified after dining with 12 of his followers, one of whom betrayed him, although we do not know if it were the 13th day of the month.  That would seem to be very bad luck and should have credence, especially in so-called “Christian countries.”  Obviously, such a tradition of fear would have started a couple of millennia ago, right?  Wrong.  There is no ancient Christian tradition of Friday the 13th being unlucky.  While 13 has been considered an unlucky number to seat at a table for many years, even that cannot be definitely linked to Christianity.  Loki, the Norse god of mischief, was the 13th god at an unlucky Valhalla banquet and well may be the source of that superstition.  But, as far as the legend goes, we don’t know that the banquet was on a Friday.

Things got hot for Jacques DeMolay

Things got hot for Jacques DeMolay

Another theory is that it started when the fabled Knights Templar came under persecution by King Philip IV of France, known as “The Fair” because of his hair color rather than his equability, arrested Templar Grand Master Jaqcues DeMolay and other members of the order on Friday, October 13, 1307.  Now that really sounds like the source, right?  Unfortunately, (if you’ll pardon the pun) there is no reference to it being an unlucky day from that time hence.  In fact, as late as 1882 there is no record of Friday the 13th being considered particularly unlucky.

No way is that my room!

No way is that my room!

Friday itself had long been considered unlucky, again for reasons lost in time.  Perhaps it was because Jesus was crucified on a Friday, but pagan Germanic tribes considered it an unlucky day as well.  The number 13 has had a bad rap in most Western cultures so that up to 80% of high-rises are built with the floors numbered without a 13, but not in Asian ones, which consider 4 the unlucky number.  Why?  Oft times trying to attach logic to superstition is a wasted effort.  But when did 13 get attached to Friday as a double whammy?  It seems that a group of anti-superstitionists got together and officially formed the Thirteen Club in New York City on Friday, January 13, 1882.

The Thirteen Club was started by men who wanted to flaunt their disbelief in superstitions, including those about Fridays, when many hangings were done (we’re not talking pictures here), and of the number 13.  They also purposely broke many mirrors, which undoubtedly was good luck for the glass industry.  Ironically, the club may well have been the originator of the whole Friday-the-13th obsession, for they would hold a gala event when Friday and the 13th of the month intersected.  Branches of the club sprang up all over the States and Britain.   And with them, Friday the 13th observations of anti-superstition by their members.

However, the Thirteen Club may well have been the founders of what they despised: a new superstition.  In 1907, stock promoter Thomas Lawson published a  book entitled Friday, the Thirteenth.  In it, the protagonist manipulated the stock market to destroy his enemies by playing on their fears of Friday the 13th.  Obviously, since 1882 and 1907, something had altered in the Western view of Friday the 13th and the Thirteen Club may well have been the agent of change.  The club whose motto was “that superstition should be assailed and combated and driven off the earth” might have started one of the biggest superstitions of all time.

Jason Returns in Monday the 13th, Part XXX

Jason Returns in “Monday the 13th, Part XXX”

The consequences of creating Friday the 13th fears are pervasive.  A whole series of slasher movies might otherwise have been called “Monday the 13th.”  Or, if made by an Italian, “Friday the 17th,” since 17 is an unlucky number in Italy.  A British study found that since fewer people drove on Friday the 13th than the Friday before.  Since that resulted in fewer fatal accidents, it was actually a lucky day for those who might not have otherwise survived it.  Perhaps that’s a bit of “making your own luck.”  Then again, a study claims that $800,000,000 is lost annually by businesses that day because people won’t marry, travel and, for the most fearful, even work on Friday the 13th.  No doubt, there are those who will cite bad things that happened to them on some Friday the 13th.  But then, other people could do that for any day and date.  As for me, I opt to go with the spirit of the now-defunct Thirteen Club and thumb my nose at the superstition.  I won’t, however, purposely break any mirrors.  It’s not that I fear seven years of bad luck, but it’s a waste of money.

Word-Cross or Crossword Puzzles

The Mother of all Addictions -Crossword, that it.  December 13, 1913

The Mother of all Addictions -the Crossword one, that is. December 13, 1913

My name is R.L. Cherry and I am an addict. If I go too many days without my crossword puzzle, I break into a cold sweat and become disoriented. A pun clue for disoriented would be someone who emigrates from China to the USA. Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Too many crossword puzzles. I blame my condition on Arthur Wynne, an Englishman whose first “word-cross” puzzle appeared in the New York World on December 13, 1913. He is generally considered to have created the first form of this addictive pastime, but some dispute this. Yeah, I know I should have written this on the centennial of that date, but I was not aware of this fact until recently. Art’s puzzle was diamond shaped instead of the current standard square and had no blacked-out spaces, but the genie was out of the bottle and, like crack cocaine, soon had unsuspecting puzzlers addicted. Fortunately for people like me, it does not destroy body and mind like cocaine, just takes control of them. Wynne and the World were sole suppliers until the Boston Globe took a piece of the action in 1917. By the Roaring Twenties, the nation was hooked on “cross-word” puzzles. Interestingly enough, The New York Times, which now publishes the acme of American crossword puzzles, wrote in the 1920’s that they were a “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport . . . [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.” They did not include them in their paper until 1942. English newspapers held firm against the onslaught until 1930, when the Times succumbed. British crossword puzzles are quite different however, from the ones on this side of the Pond. And the rest is history. Well, all of that was history, too.

My personal story began in the 1980’s. I was pretty much puzzle-free for most of my life. Sure, there was the occasional experimentation in my youth. Most people do, right? They just never admit it. Anyway, a woman who was a secretary at our business offered me a puzzle from the local paper, the San Bernardino then-named Sun Telegram. How often does it start that way, a friend saying, “Just try it. You can walk away any time you want to.” It was an entry-level puzzle, not the hard stuff. I remember when I had the clue of “a Malaysian canoe.” The answer, of course, was a proa. I said, “Not fair. Who ever heard of a ‘proa’?” I should have walked away then, seen that this could not end well. Instead, soon the Sun Telegram no longer gave me the thrill I needed. I progressed to the Los Angeles Times and, finally, to the real hard stuff, the New York Times. Sure, I occasionally dabbled in the Boston Globe’s and the San Francisco Examiner’s offerings, but they were just diversions, not completely satisfying. New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz became my main supplier, giving me the stuff that I needed. I was happy, at least for the time it took to finish my morning puzzle. Then I moved to the Isle of Man in the British Isles.

British Crossword Puzzle

British Crossword Puzzle                            For the solution to this puzzle, click here

Crossword puzzle withdrawal is not a pretty sight. The sufferer often finds him or herself rooting through old newspapers and books for a hidden puzzle. Sleep is difficult, often interrupted with visions of grids and clues. Fortunately, I found the British version. It is much different from the American one. As you can see by the example here, they have fewer crossing of letters and fewer words in the grid, making it necessary to solve each clue without the help of the crossing words for other clues. They make extensive use of puns and word play. The clues normally have two parts, one a more direct hint and the other more obscure. The solver must completely immerse oneself in that thought pattern. If you have read my book, Christmas Cracker, you experienced one when Morg encounters the diabolical British crossword puzzle in the course of solving a mystery. Often I would not solve the puzzle in one day, but would clip it out to finish it the next day. But the next day had a new one, adding to the pile. I became frantic, trying to complete puzzles days old while not finishing the current one. I was in serious danger of on words when we moved back to America.

I now have my habit under control. I can do my crossword in the morning, then have a normal life for the rest of the day. The only problems are Monday and Tuesday. Will Shortz starts the week (Monday) with an easy one, steadily making them more difficult each day until nirvana on Saturday. Sunday’s puzzle is large and difficult enough to give a thrill. But Monday and Tuesday’s are just too easy. There is no high in finishing them. I avoid them, knowing that they will only leave me with a craving for the harder stuff. But I endure it. I’m tough. Wait, is that a crossword puzzle from the Times that I never worked? Give it to me! You value that hand, give it to me now!

My Corpse, My Corpse, a Compromise for My Corpse


Richard III No Coward in Battle

Richard III
No Coward in Battle

Before I make my compromise proposal, I will give a recap of my post back in August of last year.  I wrote about the legal battle over the skeleton of Richard III, who  had been killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field, near Leicester, while battling Henry Tudor (soon to be Henry VII) in 1485.  His mutilated body was buried in a graveyard in the Greyfriars church in Leicester (no cathedral burial for Richard).  When Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, the friary was seized and sold.  Eventually, poor Richard’s grave was destroyed and forgotten.  Sic transit gloria.



Richard III's Bones

Richard III’s Bones

Vilified by Shakespeare’s masterful propaganda piece, Richard III, as a man of a twisted body, mind and soul, he came to be considered the epitome of cruel, ruthless ambition.  However, in the last century several groups were formed to promote a more sympathetic view of Richard.  In 2011, the oldest one, the Richard III Society, began a search and, eventually, found Richard under a green 1987 Mini Cooper.  Well, not exactly, but he had been paved over for a parking lot, so he might have been under one at some point.  Anyway, the government, Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, York Minster, and the Richard III Society all agreed to let Richard lie in Leicester Cathedral.  He was even to get a table tomb, like many more beloved English monarchs.  It looked like Richard might rest in peace.

The Broom Plant a.k.a Genista

The Broom Plant
a.k.a Genista

Enter the Plantagenet Alliance.  The word Plantagenet evidently was a nickname given to Geoffrey of Anjou because he wore a sprig of the broom plant (genista) in his bonnet, planted brooms to provide cover for his hunting grounds or for some unknown reason lost in the mists of time.  Not long after he went to the happy hunting grounds, his son became Henry II of England in 1154.  Three centuries later, Richard, Duke of York, called himself Richard Plantaginet (sic) when he took the throne and was the last Plantagenet king.  After Richard was disinterred in 2012, some fifteen collateral descendants (not direct-line, but from a relative) formed the Plantagenet Alliance to stop the Leicester contingent from having his bones.  (Too bad Geoffrey hadn’t been nicknamed Broom.  The Broom Alliance would have been funnier).  The Alliance said they should decide and York Minster was their choice.  Other proposals cropped up, including Westminster Abbey and the Worksop Priory Church.  That last, little-known place was proposed by the MP from that region, claiming it was a good compromise because it was located halfway between Leicester and York.  I’m sure it had nothing to do with the expected £4,000,000 in tourist revenues from Richard’s bones.  The courts recently ruled that Richard would stay in Leicester, saying that there was “no direct evidence of any definitive wishes expressed by Richard III as to his place of burial.”  The Alliance is threatening an appeal.  The Mayor of Leicester has said, “Those bones leave Leicester over my dead body.”  Lawyers’ fees could outstrip tourist revenue if something is not done.  So I have a proposal: divvy Richard up.

Many saints of the church have a bone here and another one there, known as relics and often stored in a fancy container known as a reliquary.  Take ST_OSWALDSt. Oswald, a sanctified king of 7th century Northumbria.  Originally buried at Bardney Abbey, three of his bones are still there, or so they say.  Peterborough Cathedral claims an arm and monasaries across England (Bath, Glastonbury, Reading, St. Albans, Christchurch (Hants), Tynemouth and York) say they have a bone or two.  Hildesheim, Germany, built a shrine that supposedly houses his head,  All of these locations got some play from the pilgrimage crowd.  Many others, including St. Andrew, St. Paul, and St. Thomas á Becket, are scattered as well.  Why not Richard?  While I would not call Richard a saint (all indicators point to him having killed his young nephews for the throne and had at least a couple of affairs), it would end the legal haggling and expenses of those involved to follow those precedents.  Put his rib cage (heart) in Westminster Abbey, near his wife Anne Neville.  His head (brain) should go to York, where he plotted his rise to power.  His pelvis is a different matter.  He had two, maybe three, illegitimate children of unknown mothers.  Since John of Gloucester was the most famous one, let Gloucester Cathedral have his pelvis until better claimants arise.  As for the rest of his bones, bury them at Leicester.  Well, except for his right hand.  I’m sure Richard would want that to go to St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, in front of the tomb of Henry VII, middle pointing skyward.

 “As long as I don’t get covered too much in egg and tomato I’ll be all right.”

“As long as I don’t get covered too much in egg and tomato I’ll be all right.”

To date, the royals have abstained from  commenting on where should Richard’s final resting place should be.  I suppose they feel they have had enough embarrassment in the press for verbal faux pas in the past and are lying low.  But now is the time to act, before the nation descends into a civil war to rival the so-called War of the Roses.  Send Richard’s bones to be ambassadors of good will and financial gain to the far regions of England.  I know he would have a good laugh about that.

Easter Sunday Remembered

Easter 1951 with my mom, sisters and me.  Hey, it's baby fat!!

Easter 1951 with my mom, sisters and me. Hey, it’s baby fat!!

As long as I can remember, Easter Sunday has been a special day in my family.  Although my family definitely wasn’t rich, my parents found enough money to buy me a new suit if we I had outgrown my old one (from the discount stores of the day, J.C. Penney’s or Sears and Roebuck’s) and provide candy for our Easter baskets.  I always wore a suit to church.  Form follows function and the function was to give God our best.  For my sisters, my mom would sew a new Easter dress each year.  My oldest sister always wanted a “store-bought” one instead.  When she was in junior high, she saved up her baby-sitting money and purchased one.  Although it was not of the quality of the ones my mom made, it was “store-bought” and that was what mattered.

After church, my mom would lay out a lunch with a baked ham that had been cooking all morning.  My sisters and I would stuff ourselves on ham and scalloped potatoes before experiencing that high that only a chocolate bunny can bring.  While Halloween was a time of candy gluttony, Easter was a time of connoisseur candy.  Now obviously I did not get Godiva bunnies or truffle Easter eggs, but there was something about those chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks that was just, well, special.  It was quality rather than quantity.  At least quality in my young mind.

Then there were the dyed hard-boiled eggs.  I loved dyeing them in the solution made from dissolving  tablets in water, using flimsy wire holders to dip them.  Of course, they never looked as pretty as the pictures, but it was still fun.  However, I did not really like eating them.  I could barely stomach them, far preferring scrambled ones.  The pleasure was in the decorating, not in the eating.  So for many days after Easter, my dad would have hard-boiled eggs in his lunchbox.  Fortunately, he did enjoy them.

Easter in the Late '50's Dapper Dude with an Easter Bunny.   See, I told you it was baby fat.

Easter in the Late ’50’s
Dapper Dude with an Easter Bunny.
See, I told you it was baby fat.

Now there are those who decry the Easter bunny and colored eggs for Easter as pagan traditions of fertility.  Even the name Easter, they say, comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eostre.  That last has not been proven, but it is etymologically likely.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with “baptizing” a celebration, taking those “fun” parts that do not violate any Christian principles and incorporating them into a Christian holiday.  Many of those Christmas traditions so many cherish, like a Christmas tree, mistletoe and a yule log in the fireplace, were “baptized” as well.  There is nothing evil about enjoying yourself while celebrating a Holy day, a.k.a., a holiday.  God created fun.

Okay, I’m off my soapbox and back to remembering.  As you can tell from the pictures, celebrating Easter has been a long-standing event in my life.  And it continues to this day.  Having become an Anglican, I am into “smells and bells,” i.e., formal worship with incense and ritualism.  There is something that tugs at the heart strings when the organ hits the opening chords of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Hail Thee Festival Day.”

I admit, it does not appeal to everyone.  It’s sort of like sushi, you love it or you hate it.  No middle ground.  And I love it.

In my white suit with the late, great Jilly-dog.

In my white suit with the late, great Jilly-dog wearing her formal kerchief.

I have said before that I am an unabashed traditionalist.  I hate it when Shakespearean plays are given a modern setting and/or modern language.  I still believe in taking my hat off when entering a restaurant and opening the door for a woman.  Sadly, I admit that I have sinned in no longer opening the car door for my wife.  Mea culpa.  However, I continue to wear a suit to the Easter service, a white one for the last couple of decades (I know white is only for between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but rules can be broken for a good cause).  I have no intention of trying to make anyone else do so, but I feel I must.  Maybe it was by being taught, but then again maybe it was genetic.  It is who I am.


Don’t Kill the Cat

Yeah, I know I'm great.

Yeah, I know I’m great.  But you’re chopped liver.

Let me state that, although I’m not really a “cat person,” I do get along rather well with those domesticated tigers.  In fact, when we saved one from certain death at our business, it adopted me.  Yonke Gato (Junk Cat) would crawl up my arm and go to sleep across my shoulders as I did paperwork at my desk.  He would also bite and claw about anyone else.  Maybe it wasn’t so much love, but mutual respect and honesty about how we felt about each other that formed our relationship.  I didn’t pretend to love cats and he didn’t pretend to love people.

Pet me, pet me.

Pet me, pet me.

I did own a cat for several years.  Her mother abandoned her and her siblings in our garage in Lake Arrowhead, CA.  We named her Fosbury after Dick Fosbury, developer of the Fosbury Flop.  Like Dick, she was a high jumper, even though she was the runt.  All of her litter mates died (sorry cat lovers, but it’s the truth).  She became the proverbial “Cat from Hell.”  She would rub up against your leg, but when you reached down to pet her, she would  grab your hand with her front claws and bite it.  Hard.  She also would leave us “gifts” on the front doormat.  Heads of gophers, skinned grey squirrels, blue jay feathers and body parts.  They made for pleasant surprises when you opened the front door.  When we moved overseas, a couple we knew offered to take her and we gladly accepted.  They were afraid, however, that their big tom might pick on her.  Vain fear.  She tormented him so badly that he kept throwing up when he ate.  They finally gave her a private room in the house so tom could keep his dinner down.  Amazingly, the couple still corresponded with us and sent occasional photos as Fosbury morphed in Jabba the Hutt.

Maybe that’s why I found it interesting that when author Alan Beechey recently gave a talk on mystery writing at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference in Portland, Connecticut, he cited the first rule of writing a mystery as being “Never kill a cat.”  It gave me pause.  No, not paws, pause.  He said that it wasn’t good to kill a dog in your book and that it was rarely good to kill a child, but you should never kill a cat in your story.  It’s better to kill off an innocent child than a cat?  Why is it that cat lovers make them sacrosanct?bast

In ancient Egypt, cats held a special place.  They were near and dear to the goddess Bast.  In fact, killing a cat got you the death penalty.  That, I must say, is a fate even worse than having your book be a flop because you have a killer knock off kitty in your mystery.  However, it just goes to show you that love of felines is a long-standing tradition.  It seems that mystery readers walk like an Egyptian, at least in their pet preferences.

Being a dog lover, I don’t really understand the puss aficionados.  Dogs will mourn their masters (or mistresses), even loyally tending their graves. (click here).  Cats are more inclined to view late owners as a source of protein.  (click here)  This is not to disparage Tabby.  If anything, it makes the feline more pragmatic than  the canine.  After all, will starving yourself help bring back a loved one?  You just want to make sure kitty knows you’re taking a catnap rather than having a coronary.

Back to the first rule of mystery writing, perhaps it has to do with many mystery readers being cat owners.  I’ve never seen the pet demographics on whodunit readers, but it could be.  Perhaps many mystery readers are ancient Egyptians with long life spans.  That sounds like the basis for a new series to rival Twilight.  Whatever the case, I am wise enough to heed the warning.  I can assure any potential readers of my books that no cats will be killed in any of them.  In fact, no cats will be harmed in the making of them or in their plots.  I pledge that I will respect the rights of all cats.  So if you’re a cat lover, you can indulge in reading my books without any guilt.  Sort of like having a Diet Coke that tastes like a hot fudge sundae.  Enjoy.

Bad Irish Jokes

I love a good joke.  However, ethic jokes have a very bad rep, often for good reason  If a joke is meant to demean or insult, it is not funny.  But if it is meant to poke fun with no criminal intent, I feel it is fine.  For instance, I recently heard a Jewish joke that I think is funny:  How does Moses make his tea?  He brews.

Shanty Irish

Shanty Irish, or a stupid Mick, from a mid-1900’s newspaper shows the prejudice of that time.

If you don’t get it, say it out loud.  It is a pun, a play on words that does not insult in any way.  I feel the same about Irish jokes, ones that are now being bandied about all over the Internet because of St. Patrick’s Day.  No insult, no foul.  Yet, too often, so-called  “Polack jokes” that were meant to insult and demean the Polish are now rebranded as Irish in “honor” of the day.  Let me demonstrate.  First, I will give a joke I like and next one I do not.

A Presbyterian minister from England was assigned to a new church in Northern Ireland.  On his first Sunday, he was driving home when he ran into another car at a blind intersection in the wilds of county Londonderry.  When the other driver hopped out of his car and came over to him, the minister’s eyes went wide.  He was a Catholic priest, wearing his clerical collar.  Now the Catholics and Protestants are known to have some issues and many Irish don’t love the English, so the minister braced himself for the worst.  The priest leaned down and peered in the minister’s window.  “Are you alright?”  The minister breathed a sigh of relief and got out of his car.

“I think so.  A little shaky is all.”

“Ah, me too.”  The priest looked down at the dented fenders.  “They’re bejanxed.  I fear we need roadside assistance.  I’ll call on my mobile.”  The priest walked off a bit and called.  Then he came back to the minister.  “You look brutal.  I could use a nip to steel me nerves.  How ’bout you?  I’ve got a bottle of Jamesons in the boot (trunk).”

The minister was relieved that all the horrible things he’d heard about the the Irish Catholics weren’t true.  A drink sounded good.  “I could use a short one.”

The priest opened his trunk and pulled out a bottle of Irish whiskey.  He opened it and handed it to the minister who took a swig and handed it back. The priest studied him.  “You still look a bit pale, lad.  Would you like another?”  The minister gladly took another stiff drink and handed it back to the priest.  “That’s enough for me. The rest is yours.”

The priest screwed the cap back on and dropped the bottle back in his trunk.  “I’ll wait until after the Guarda (police) have been here.”

The Catholic priest is a bit wily, but you like him.  Maybe if you’re a Presbyterian minister you might be upset at the gullibility of that character, but no one is an idiot in the joke.  It’s funny without being insulting.  Now compare it to this one I found on the Net:

Pat and Mick landed themselves a job at a sawmill.  Just before morning tea Pat yelled, “Mick! I lost me finger!”  “Have you now?” says Mick. “And how did you do it?” “I just touched this big spinning thing here like thi–Damn! There goes another one!”

The Irishman could be Polish, Jewish or whatever ethnic group you want to insult.  It has nothing to do with Ireland or the Irish.  It’s intent is to make a certain ethnic group look stupid.  It is a not funny.  Why do such jokes persist?  Maybe just to make little people feel bigger by putting someone else down,  The old saying is that dying is easy, but comedy is hard.  Let’s let the stupid, insulting jokes die and go for the hard comedy.

The Ides of March

Julius Caesar: The Ides of March Guy and Calendar Changer

Julius Caesar:
The Ides of March Guy and
Calendar Changer

When it comes to the most famous date in ancient Rome, the Ides of March comes to mind.  In fact, for most it is the only date that comes to mind, thanks to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  “Beware the Ides of March,” the soothsayer tells the doomed Caesar in Act I Scene 2 of that play.  Of course, because of his ambition Caesar doesn’t, and the rest is history and a great play.  But what exactly was the Ides of March?

To answer that, first I must give an explanation of the Roman calendar.  The first one was called the calendar of Romulus (the legendary founder of Rome) and had ten months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December.  Most of the names are familiar if you change the ones with a first letter of “I” to a “J”  because there was no “J” in the Latin alphabet.  The first three months were named after Roman deities, Mars, Maia and Juno.  The last six came from the Latin words for five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten.  Where Aprilis came from no one knows.  It supposedly had been created about 753 B.C.  Since six of them had 30 days and four had 31, the total number of days in the calendar was 304 and it had some problems coinciding with the solar year.  The next one, the Calendar of Numa, was claimed to have been created by the second of Rome’s legendary seven kings, Numa Pompilius.  It added three months (Ianuarius, Februarius, and Mercedonius, also known as Intercalaris).  In this calendar, 30 days hath September, Aprilis, Iunius, November, and December.  All the rest have 31, except Februarius which has 28 and Mercedonius which has none except on a leap year when it has 27.  Is that clear as mud?

When Julius (actually Iulius) Caesar came along, he decided to simplify things.  He axed Mercedonius and changed the number of days to thirty days hath September, Aprilis, Iunius, and November.  All the rest have 31, except Februarius, which has 28 unless it’s a leap year, then 29.  Sound familiar?  Once you change the names of Sextilis to Iulius and Quintilis to August (changed after the death of Julius and Augustus Caesars respectively), you pretty much have our modern calendar.  Each month has an Ides.  In Martius, it’s the 15th.  So why not just call it quindecim, the Latin word for 15?  Because it wasn’t one the fifteenth each month.  Get out a pad and pencil so you can keep track of what follows.  It is guaranteed to confound.

The Romans didn’t just number the days of their months from one to 28, 29, 30 or 31.  No, they had to be difficult.  After all, that’s Latin’s middle name.  Only three days are defined: Kalens, Nones and Ides.  Kalens (from whence we get the word calendar) is the first day of the month.  Easy.  Nones is the 5th day of short months and the 7th day of long months, while Ides is the 13th day of short months and the 15th day of long months (like March).  Hmm.  A little more difficult, but not too bad.  What about the other days of the month?  After the 1st (Kalens), the date is how many days before the Nones, until it reaches Nones.  You count nones itself in the counting.  So March 2nd would be “six days before the Nones of March” (VI Nonis Martiis in Latin), while April 2nd would be “four days before the Nones of April.”  A little more confusing.  Then you use the number of days before the Ides until you get to the Ides.   March 11th would be “five days before the Ides of March,” whereas the 11th of April would be “three days before the Ides of April.”  What about after the Ides?  Those days become the number of days before the Kalens of the next month.   March 29th would be “four days before the Kalens of April,” while April 29th would be “three days before the Kalens of May” (ante diem III Kalenis Maii).  Well, that works unless it’s the day before Kalens, Nones or Ides, then it’s “pridie.”  In Latin, March 31 would be “pridie Kalenis Aprilibus.”    Got it?  If you do, what would February 28th be in a regular year and in a leap year?  I never said this would be easy.

Julius Caesar's Friday the 13th was on  Wednesday the 15hth

Julius Caesar’s Friday the 13th was on Wednesday the 15th, the Ides of March. Happy Anna Perenna Festival, Julius.

So, was the Ides of March to the Romans like Friday the 13th to us, a day known for bad luck?  Not at all.  It was a festival day for Anna Perenna, who was either an old woman who gave food  to the plebeians (poor class) when they went on strike in the 5th century B.C. or Dido’s sister who fled Carthage after Queen Dido’s suicide (an interesting tale, but not for this post).  Nice to have a holiday for someone and not know who she really was.  So the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar had nothing to do with the day itself, but what was going to happen to him on it.  In Latin, the date when he was killed is Idibus Martiis DCCIX Anno Urbis Conditae, abbreviated as Id. Mar. DCCIX AUC.  The year is 709 AUC, how long since the traditional founding of Rome (Anno Urbis Conditae) in 753 BC, instead of 44 BC.

After Caesar’s assassination, however, referring to the Ides of March did become synonymous to referring to the assassination.  Not long after that deed, the famous statesman Cicero, no fan of Julius Caesar, wrote, “The Ides of March are encouraging.”  His meaning was obvious to any Roman.  Maybe that’s why Julius Caesar’s good buddy Mark Antony had him killed.  However, if not for Shakespeare most people today would have no idea even what the Ides of March is.

So, if you are at a cocktail party with boring people, you can now give a detailed explanation of the Ides of March to them.  By the time you finish, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be the only one left.  If the hors d’oeuvres are better than the company, it might be worth doing.